The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund was launched on July 4, 2007, to symbolically emphasize its commitment to farmer and consumer independence.

It was formed in large measure as a result of a government crackdown on producers of raw milk, and the emergence of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Part of its purpose was to “Protect the nation’s family farms from harassment by federal, state, and local government interference with food production and on-farm food processing.”

Today, it is facing financial problems similar to many nonprofit advocacy organizations, and indeed, Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation will be helping via a fundraiser (announcement coming in September).

But a bigger challenge facing the young organization concerns its identity. Is it, as its name suggests, an aggressive court representative of farmers seeking to challenge regulatory excesses? Or is it a service organization that provides legal and regulatory advice to farmers trying to establish cow-shares and buying clubs to serve the growing number of consumers seeking nutrient-dense food?

Now, I presume these questions are being addressed internally at the organization. As a big fan of the organization since its founding–and its dedicated team of Pete Kennedy, Gary Cox, Tim Wightman, and Cathy Raymond–I thought I’d weigh in with my own take on the situation.

The identity issue assumes added urgency because the FTCLDF is in the midst of a bad streak on the legal front, having come out on the short end of three recent major legal cases.

The first legal setback occurred in California, after it obtained a temporary restraining order to block enforcement of the state’s controversial raw milk coliform standard, AB1735. Its request for a longer-term judicial interference, an injunction, was denied in May 2008, and in effect, the judge was casting doubt on the case. The case is awaiting trial, possibly by the end of this year.

The second problem occurred in November 2008, when a New York state court denied a request for a permanent injunction on behalf of Meadowsweet Dairy, a cow-share type operation, holding that it must operate under authority of NY State Ag and Markets. That case is under appeal.

And then last month, a U.S. District Court dismissed the federal court case it put together against NAIS. holding in part that the case should have originated in a Michigan court.

The legal setbacks contrast with the FTCLDF’s activities in a different arena–on the service front, where it has been extremely successful. Its lawyers have helped hundreds of farmers establish cow-share and goat-share operations.

Similarly, it provides farmers and food producers advice on buying clubs, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and other sorts of private distribution approaches. It also intervenes on occasion when regulators seek to interfere or question such approaches.

So one of the questions confronting the organization is how it continues its legal intervention efforts. Court challenges of existing laws and regulations is both time consuming and very expensive. Cases can take years to conclude, and cost many thousands of dollars. Providing services is much less time consuming, and less costly.

One obvious approach to deciding what to do is to take the business approach. If you’re in business pursuing two different markets, and one is successful while the other isn’t, you go with the one that is. In the case of FTCLDF’s two types of initiatives, it seems clear that the court “market” is much less receptive to helping owners of sustainable farms than consumers are. They love cow shares and buying clubs as a way to gain access to nutrient-dense foods the government would just as soon they not have. So in this view, you go with what works. From a policy perspective, you try to beat the system via volume—you help create so many farms serving so many consumers that, eventually, it doesn’t matter how negative the official channels are.

But running a legal defense fund isn’t necessarily so straightforward. It isn’t a conventional business. It is committed to seeking rights that are being compromised. So it could be that it needs to reassess its court actions, rather than discontinue them. Perhaps it has to focus more on influencing the legislative front. (It has almost single-handedly brought the problems of HR 2749, the food safety legislation, to public attention.)

No matter where it comes out, though, the organization has had a huge impact in raising awareness among both farmers and consumers as to the high-stakes game being played in terms of food rights. I’m sure it will find a workable path to continue and expand its efforts.